Rescue puppies get surprising stand-in mom: A capybara
Janice Wolf has made it her mission in life to rescue animals that others might not. When dogs come to stay at her 15-acre home in Midway, Ark., which doubles as an animal "group home," they're often pregnant and malnourished. Many have endured significant — sometimes life-threatening — abuse.
As a result, Wolf's dogs are often too weak to care for their litters for an extended period of time. And that's where capybara Cheesecake steps in to foster them.
Two-and-half years ago, a group of Wolf's Facebook friends presented her with baby Cheesecake as a gift to express their condolences over the death of the most famous animal to live on her property: Lurch, a steer that held the Guiness World Record for the largest horn circumference.
Capybaras are the world's largest (and possibly most stoic-looking) rodent, but that hasn't stopped Cheesecake from taking on a maternal role with the little ones living at Wolf's Rocky Ridge Refuge while they wait for new homes. She cuddles with the pups, lets them parade around with her, and makes them mind their manners around the food bowl.
"The moms all trust Cheese with their babies, and the babies trust her," Wolf told TODAY.com. "It's a really good transition for them; they learn to be big guys and independent."
It's been this way since Cheesecake first arrived at Wolf's home. Though timid around humans, she took to Wolf's rescued dogs right away, playing all day and sleeping with them at night. "She preferred them to me," Wolf said with a laugh.
When a litter of motherless dachshund puppies, found in a Tupperware container outside of a church, arrived at the refuge on March 6, Wolf sent them out to play in Cheesecake's fenced-in area. It wasn't long before Cheesecake started showing off her maternal instincts.
"She lets them be puppies, but she gives them someone to look up to," Wolf, 55, said. "If they dive in their food bowl, she'll let them know that's rude. She's not a pushover."
More recently, Cheesecake has been caring for two separate litters, stepping in for moms Skylark and Delta. Wolf dubbed Skylark's babies the "car pups" because of the unusual circumstances surrounding their birth.
In mid-May, Wolf was notified that a pregnant pit bull mix with a BB gun injury was at risk of being euthanized at a shelter. She picked up Skylark the next day to take her to a vet for a C-section so the puppies could be delivered safely. But the babies had another idea: Skylark went into labor on the way to the appointment.
"Poor thing, she was scared to death," Wolf said.
Two puppies greeted the world from the inside of Wolf's car, and another two were born as soon as they got back to the refuge. By the next day, Skylark had given birth to seven pups, of which four ended up surviving.
While Skylark was receiving medical attention and gaining strength back on her own, Cheesecake took over as a surrogate.
Skylark's story may seem unusual, but she's the kind of dog Wolf rescues every week, as her home has become a revolving door for abused moms and their litters from all over the country. As soon as she's raised one brood and found them happy homes, another litter moves right in. And the babies have even taken over one of the more sacred human spaces: her bedroom. Not that Wolf minds, of course.
"I didn't intend for my bedroom to be the welcome room, but there have been puppies underfoot in my bedroom for many, many mouths," she said. "It's here for the animals; my bed just happens to be there."